The long-awaited ‘Expert panel final report: Investing in New Zealand’s children and Their Families’ was released on Thursday 7 April.
There are some good things in this report and there are also some things which are deeply disturbing for the future of the most impoverished and marginalised families in Aotearoa -New Zealand. Alarms are also raised for the future of social work, particularly statutory child protection. First it is important to praise the intention to better resource services for children in state care and to support the well-being of young people leaving care. This is long overdue and more must be done. Regrettably this glaring need appears to have also served as a Trojan horse for a variety of other ideologically driven reforms. The report is often couched in unclear corporate business speak and there are a variety of contradictory positions adopted. It is worth looking at some of the many underlying assumptions as this can help us to interpret the intent.
Notably the foreword to the report begins by focusing on a history of inadequate reviews of the ‘care system’. The revealing implication is that the CYF Service is conceptualised as a care system as opposed to a social work service, of which ‘care’ is an important part. In many ways a cure for the inadequacies of this ‘care system’ has been confused (perhaps deliberately) with a prescription for change to wider child and family social services, particularly those delivered by the state. Before revisiting this issue it is important to expose a larger assumption which is also obscured in this process. ‘Poor outcomes’ are seen to be caused by the family environment of children and their own complex needs. There is no reference to social inequality – inadequate incomes, housing and health services – or to the economic reproduction of these social deficits.
There is, however, a clearly implied focus on the failure of social services to fix these vulnerable people. Social policy solutions are always related to how problems are constructed ideologically and politically. The wider thrust of the social investment model (which the proposed reforms are embedded within) argues that if the damaged (and high future fiscal risk in terms of state benefits and imprisonment) children of this generation can be removed relatively quickly to safe and loving homes, then these downstream costs will be minimised in the future. We will all move forward to a safer and more loving future. Whether you believe this really depends on whether you buy the Government’s take on ‘causation’. I don’t.
To return to state social workers, there is a further implication that since they have been unable to address ‘vulnerability’, their skills and abilities are therefore deficient. Some might see this verdict a tad unfair. There is no mention anywhere in this report (unlike in the U.K Munro Review) of the skills that social workers apply to statutory child protection practice – engaging and effectively communicating with multi-stressed families, building relationships, energy and motivation for change with children and adults in situations where abuse and neglect are present: balancing risk and safety and making demanding ethical decisions under pressure. There were, after all, no social workers on this review panel which we deem neither expert nor independent. It seems clear that whether such skills are understood or not, they are simply not valued or – perhaps more significantly, ‘trusted’.
According to this expert panel, the ‘upskilled’ role for statutory social workers will involve purchasing services (including the ‘building of markets’), meeting the demands of ‘evidence-based’ practice and supporting traumatised children in the care system. This sounds more like de-skilling if you ask me. What does seem abundantly clear (despite the at times contradictory messages) is that statutory social workers will be required to make earlier tough calls on removing children permanently from their parents. This is to be done in a way that prioritises stability and connection to new family. Since state social workers appear to have less direct contact with client families it is fortunate that ‘scientific / clinical’ evidence-driven and child-centric tools will be available – so we can rest easy! Legislative change will be required to facilitate this child rescue shift by further watering down of the CYP&F Act, 1989.
These decision making processes – about removal and out of family permanency – go to the heart of statutory child protection and the report only touches this in a very superficial way. Intensive services will be targeted at high vulnerability (potentially high fiscal cost families). When it becomes ‘clear’ – in a child centric way – that ‘birth family’ can’t provide adequate safety and care, the intention is to go straight for the stable and loving alternative. It is evident that more care is envisaged (hence the call for buy in from middle NZ to help save the wretched) until the cycle of vulnerability is broken twenty or thirty years down the track (see paragraph four). I don’t believe that either. Don’t get me wrong, I welcome preventative and intensive support services as a concept (and if we see more money go there we might get some helpful services) – it is the rest of the plot that I have trouble with.
Finally I will mention my disquiet at some of the Orwellian fringe material in the report and the related Cabinet papers about some sort of costed actuarial risk profile that can be applied to individuals and families through the crunching of big data held by the surveillance state. Bizarre as it seems, such a tool may be developed and applied – translated into fully costed and reviewable love and stability deficit scores perhaps? Please excuse the cynicism. I am an old social worker. I have little faith in neoliberal politics to deliver us a more equal and caring society. I do, however, have faith in the irrepressible capacity of the social work voice to ‘speak truth to power’ and I am optimistic that we will embrace what is useful for the whanau whom we serve at this turn of the tide. Much of this report is banal and ideologically skewed – but there are opportunities in here too – which we must take with both hands.